My sister works in private banking. One of the clients in her office is an old woman who uses a walker. She is Jewish and has a heavy European accent. She is old and bent over but always looks smashing. Her hair, her clothes, her make-up….always perfect, always elegant.
A week or so ago, this woman’s son came into the bank and chatted with my sister. He told her who his mother is and that he had some banking to do. My sister asked him about his mother. His mother is 85 years old. She is from Poland. When Katie asked him when his mother had immigrated to the U.S., he told her “after the war”.
Wince. A Polish Jew, born in 1928 who arrived in the U.S. after WWII.
This woman, I will call her T, went to Birkenau, the Nazi Concentration Camp for women at the age of 13. Birkenau was part of the Auschwitz system of camps and when Birkenau became “over-crowded”, T was one of the prisoners moved to another part of Auschwitz. She met her husband there, when she was just 15 years old. They had the first of two children (the man my sister was talking to) in a camp for displaced persons after the death camps were liberated by the Allies.
Prior to WWII, there were about 3.3 million Jews in Poland. About 300,000 survived.
Eventually the couple came to the U.S. with $30. T’s husband got a job with a painting company and painted houses. They bought real estate. They raised their kids. They lived out their lives together. A few years ago, at the husband’s funeral, his son gave the eulogy and said, “My father was not a “survivor”, he was a “thriver”. ”
It is easy to live a life of “quiet desperation“. We are all scarred, some more deeply and painfully than others. Some are still young and life hasn’t taken its pound of flesh yet but it will. If you reach, let’s say my age, 48 and you haven’t been roughed up a bit, then you are not engaging in this life.
The scars cannot define us.
The Holocaust, Birkenau, Auschwitz, the fading numbers tattooed on their arms did not define these people. Their work and their love and their children and their faith defined them. They not only survived horrors most of us will never know, they moved on and thrived. We all have this in us, even when we despair, when we think there is no good on this earth. We have the possibility, we have the chance to do more than survive. We have the opportunity to make something big or small out of this life. And it would be a sin, a shame, a waste to not leave this place without leaving our own personal, imperfect, cherished mark on it.
Life can be very short. Life can be very long. It’s never what we planned or ordered it to be. But while we are here, let us thrive.